The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey: A True Story of Sex, Crime and the Meaning of Justice 
by Julia Laite.
Profile, 410 pp., £16.99, April, 978 1 78816 442 9
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Was​ Lydia Harvey ‘respectable’ or wasn’t she? This was a question on which a surprising number of people had a view in the summer of 1910, including the prime minister of New Zealand. Earlier that year, Harvey, then sixteen, had been working as a photographer’s assistant in Wellington when she suddenly left her boarding house. She wrote to her mother in Oamaru to explain that she had got a job as a nursemaid for a rich married couple who were going to take her on their travels. This was the last her mother heard of her until she was picked up by the police near Charing Cross six months later. Her mousy hair was now peroxide blonde and she was calling herself Doris Williams.

The case of Lydia Harvey seemed in many ways a textbook example of an inexperienced girl ruined by the ‘white slave trade’. In the first decade of the 20th century, panic in the Anglophone world over the sex trafficking of white women generated dozens of salacious books with titles such as In the Grip of the White Slaver, The Girl That Disappears and War on the White Slave Trade. The plot varied little: as J.P. Wilson wrote in The White Slave Traffic in 1912, ‘her slavery lasts some five or six years as a rule, and then she is flung out upon the streets, her character gone, her hope dead, her body diseased, to die before long either in a workhouse or a Lock Hospital’ (which treated venereal diseases).

Harvey’s story is a rare historic case study of white slavery: her testimony survives because two of the people who exploited her were tried in court. Julia Laite recounts the case in chapters named after the main protagonists: ‘The Disappearing Girl’, ‘The Detective’, ‘The Newsman’, ‘The Rescuer’ and so on. She has meticulously pieced together every possible surviving detail about Harvey, from archives in New Zealand, Australia, Geneva, Turin, Paris and London. She uses the story of Harvey’s life to illuminate a wider narrative about the birth of the 20th-century globalised sex trade, examining its horrors as well as the troubling social discourse about race and respectability that went with it. But she also has to be imaginative, because the historical record is sparse. This is one of those history books that teems with perhapses and very likelys and must haves, and at times Laite takes it too far: ‘When the cable arrived at Scotland Yard, Frederick Bullock’s fist must have hit his desk.’ Must it? What if Bullock (a detective) was not the fist-thumping type?

The nice rich couple Harvey told her mother about were in fact an Italian pimp, Antonio Carvelli, and his wife, an Australian prostitute called Veronique White, though they told Harvey they were called Mr and Mrs Cellis. Veronique (or ‘Marie’) said her husband (‘Aldo’) was a commercial traveller who planned to go into business in Buenos Aires. They showed Harvey ‘silk underwear, fine dresses and plush red-leather boots’ as a taste of things to come. Finally, they told her that her job in Buenos Aires would be to ‘see gentlemen’, but that it would be ‘no different to what you’ve already done with your sweetheart’.

Harvey travelled third class on a steamship to Argentina. When she arrived the couple took her to the Teatro Casino in Buenos Aires, where one observer said that women selling sex were so numerous they were like ‘four hundred sheep on an Algerian cargo boat’. White dyed Harvey’s hair blonde, did her make-up and showed her how to smile at men with her head tilted to one side. The pair forced her to have sex with many men, some of them, Harvey later testified, ‘old, dirty and very repulsive’. Carvelli had sex with her too, and made her watch while his wife performed oral sex on him – showing her how to do it ‘the French way’. (She told them she would never do ‘the mouth thing’, much to Carvelli’s annoyance.) They enrolled her in a brothel, where she was entered on Buenos Aires’s register of newly arrived prostitutes. By the time the couple decided to take her to London, she had contracted gonorrhoea and scabies. Carvelli taught her how to walk the streets near Piccadilly Circus, taking clients for 15 shillings a time. But soon he’d had enough of her – he had met some young French girls who seemed more promising – and sold her to another pimp. When she was picked up by the police soon afterwards, Harvey told them she’d had no choice but to do what was asked of her: ‘I had no money and no proper clothes.’ In her witness statement, she said that until she met Carvelli and White, she had been respectable: ‘I [had] never done that sort of thing for money or presents before meeting the Cellises and I regret that I ever met them.’

The idea of a woman’s ‘respectability’ – or her lack of it – was at the heart of panicked narratives about the ‘white slave trade’, fictional and factual. The journalist who did most to establish the genre was W.T. Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette. In 1885 he exposed the extent of child prostitution in London in a multi-part investigation, ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’. ‘Is it or is it not a fact,’ he asked an experienced police officer, ‘that, at this moment, if I were to go to the proper houses, well introduced, the keeper would, in return for money down, supply me in due time with a maid – a genuine article, I mean, not a mere prostitute tricked out as a virgin, but a girl who had never been seduced?’ To prove his point, Stead paid £5 to purchase a 13-year-old he called ‘Lily’ (her real name was Eliza Armstrong) from her drunken mother, having first paid an abortionist to ‘certify’ Armstrong’s virginity. Stead was charged with Eliza’s abduction and spent three months in prison. But the main consequence of his reportage was the Criminal Law Amendment Act, legislation that exemplified Victorian sexual morality (Section 11 criminalised all homosexual acts between men, public or private, a law that remained in force for more than eighty years), and offered increased protection – in theory – to the virginal ‘Lilies’ of Britain. The age of consent was raised from thirteen to sixteen and it became a criminal offence to abduct a girl under eighteen for the purposes of carnal knowledge.

Despite this, the trade in white slavery – and fevered moral discussions about it – continued to grow. By the Edwardian era, sex trafficking had become an intricate international trade with networks from New York to Buenos Aires, from Istanbul and Paris to London, and even, as Harvey’s case illustrates, to and from New Zealand and Australia. This required equally elaborate communication networks between police forces continents apart. As Laite writes, international sex trafficking changed the face of policing:

‘The traffic in women’ was the first – and for a time the only – global crime that required police forces around the world to establish a central authority in each country, in charge of co-ordinating the national and international efforts to combat it. Discussion of ‘white slavery’ dominated early international police conferences, and the problem of sex trafficking was instrumental in establishing what would later become Interpol.

The London detectives who finally apprehended Carvelli and his associate Alessandro di Nicotera, another Italian pimp, had to liaise with authorities in Paris, Turin, Wellington and various Australian districts in order to gather background information on these ‘ruffians’. Police in Turin, where Carvelli grew up, reported that he was still wanted on a charge of theft from ten years earlier. The authorities in Sydney, where he turned up next, knew him as a petty thief, but were not aware of any connection with sex trafficking. The police in Western Australia reported that he was known to them as a ‘bludger’ in the goldfields – a nickname for a pimp – and had stood trial in 1908 for ‘living on the earnings’. This fitted with the information that Scotland Yard detectives had started to gather, which indicated that Carvelli and di Nicotera were possible leaders of an international sex trafficking gang based in London. But the difficulty for Scotland Yard lay in finding plausible witnesses to their crimes.

Then as now, police had a complicated relationship with women who worked as prostitutes. The usual charge was ‘being a common prostitute behaving in a riotous or indecent manner’, an offence that might carry a fine of forty shillings or a night in the cells. Some Edwardian policemen expressed pity for the poor women on the street, but many viewed them with misogynist contempt. Robert Fabian, a former London superintendent, wrote in his memoirs that ‘the whore is a bad apple … there is a big brown bruise on her soul, of self-indulgence and selfishness.’ But traffickers and pimps were also vile: ‘the lowest form of animal life on the criminal scale’. This introduced a contradiction into the policing of prostitution. For officers dealing with international trafficking, the prostitute was no longer to be seen as a criminal but as a victim. As one of the police solicitors involved in the Carvelli investigation noted, the case was ‘a somewhat difficult and anxious one owing to the class of women and girls we have to deal with’. Detectives working against this ‘nefarious traffic’ needed to be on the hunt for innocent white slaves: they were the women the law deemed worth saving.

When Detective Inspector Ernest Anderson brought Harvey into the Great Marlborough Street police station on 9 July 1910, it was clear that she was a promising victim, respectable enough to help bring the ‘ruffians’ to justice. She was young, Protestant, sexually inexperienced and softly spoken, and she had a background of legitimate, respectable work in New Zealand (before taking her job in the photographer’s studio she had been a domestic servant). She gave her initial statement to the Metropolitan Police’s first ‘lady assistant’, Eilidh MacDougall, who ran the newly opened Police Home for Women and Girls. MacDougall was the daughter of a barrister, and before joining the police had looked after ‘friendless’ women and girls in Southwark. Part of her job now was to show the young women who arrived in her care how to present themselves as credible victims. One of them had been a 15-year-old girl, nine months pregnant, who had to testify in court against the uncle who raped her. He was found not guilty. MacDougall saw child molesters go free because the courts would only accept children as witnesses when they were over the age of eight, which effectively gave a free pass to the rapists of younger children. Guilty men were acquitted when the child hadn’t immediately reported the crime, but as MacDougall wrote, ‘it is seldom mentioned … that the child had been threatened with many horrors if she did tell.’

With MacDougall’s assistance, Harvey was able to present herself as a whiter-than-white slave. The matron at the Police Home gave her a plain cotton dress and dyed her hair back to its original colour. Harvey’s full statement to the court, transcribed by MacDougall, showed that she was a hard-working respectable girl who would never have fallen into sex work if she hadn’t been unlucky enough to encounter a charming new lodger at her boarding house. At dinner one evening he told her all about his foreign adventures; she said the longest journey she had ever taken was from the South to the North Island. He asked if she would like to meet people who could help her travel abroad; she said she would. The man turned out to be an associate of Carvelli. Her statement emphasised how frightened she was that her mother might find out what she had done, as well as her fear of Carvelli himself. ‘He said if I gave information to the police they would put me in a home and then into service where I would have to work for other people.’

Not every woman exploited by sex traffickers fitted the model of the deserving victim. As a witness, Harvey was far more useful than three young Frenchwomen who also testified against Carvelli and di Nicotera. One of them, Victoria Bricot, was known to the Paris police as a prostitute. The others, Mireille Lapara and Marguerite Bescançon, had worked in Paris as dressmakers before being trafficked to London. Like Harvey, they had been lied to, groomed and forced into prostitution. Like her, they had been promised travel and a way out of low-paid jobs. Lapara had met di Nicotera, who was then calling himself Alexander Berard, while walking into the Métro at the Tuileries. He took her back to his ‘très chic’ hotel and introduced her to Carvelli, who invited her to come to London with him and di Nicotera, along with the two other French girls they already had in tow.

Two days after they arrived, Lapara was ordered to go on the streets, take men home and give her earnings to di Nicotera. ‘I told him that I would not do it, but he said I should soon get used to it.’ Bricot and Bescançon both told the London police that they had slept with ‘a few’ men before Carvelli and di Nicotera. But Lapara, who said she hadn’t slept with anyone, had to be taught how to smile at potential clients. Her teacher, passing on the lessons she herself had learned in Buenos Aires, was Lydia Harvey. (Undercover police had watched a girl with peroxide blonde hair use hand gestures to show Lapara which routes to take to solicit men.) And yet to the police and the court Lapara didn’t seem as persuasive a victim as Harvey. Perhaps she was just too French.

The notion of white slavery was grotesquely racialised. Whiteness was not just a metaphor for sexual innocence. As Laite writes, the very idea of white slavery depended on the ‘erasure of black suffering’ and the notion that sex trafficking only mattered when the victims were white women, and white women of the right kind. The anonymous author of The White Slave Traffic (1916) wrote that the trade ‘consists of the trapping of young women, who, once “broken in”, are condemned to a perpetual servitude, beside which the sufferings endured by the African slaves, prior to their liberation, are as nothing’. The slavers themselves were imagined as deeply foreign, monstrous and often Jewish. The panic about white slavery, Laite suggests, helped society to ignore abuses closer to home; it deflected attention from crimes committed by ‘the fathers, grandfathers, uncles and brothers of respectable working and middle-class families, or the teachers and priests at schools and other children’s institutions’.

During the trial at the Old Bailey in September 1910, the judge announced that ‘although some of the foreign women whom the prisoners had induced to come to this country had probably been leading loose lives before, there was certainly one case in which it was not so’ (he was referring to Harvey). He sentenced di Nicotera and Carvelli to six months in jail – a lighter sentence than was often given for common theft – even though they had been found guilty of the serious crimes of procurement and conspiracy. But it was only the judge’s belief in Harvey’s good character that secured a conviction at all. It was extremely rare for cases of ‘procuring for the purposes of prostitution’ to be tried successfully. In 1909, only seven out of the fifteen cases of procurement reported to police forces in England and Wales went to trial, and only four resulted in a guilty verdict. Of these, just one man served more than a year in prison. That same year, almost ten thousand women in England and Wales were convicted of solicitation offences, with 2500 of them receiving prison sentences. The law may have struggled to find pimps guilty, but it had no difficulty in condemning female prostitutes.

The journalist Guy Scholefield, who reported Harvey’s case for the New Zealand Evening Post, described her as an ‘unfortunate girl’ entrapped by dreams of travel and fine clothes. The fact that this ‘band of miscreants’ could do such terrible things to a girl lured from the streets of Wellington was cause for great alarm:

A startling evidence has just come to light of the terrible reality of the White Slave Traffic. So far as was generally known, the traffic existed chiefly between America, Europe and the Far East, but a very sad case has just come to light which indicates that there are bands of miscreants even in New Zealand procuring girls for the markets of Buenos Aires and elsewhere.

The case should act as ‘a warning to other girls who might be deceived in the same way, and to their parents’.

Not everyone believed Harvey was a respectable girl. Any lawyer acting for traffickers knew that the best chance of acquittal was to cast doubt on the morals of the women making the accusations. Mr Newton, the lawyer for the defence at the first magistrate’s hearing, interrogated Harvey about her reasons for consenting to go with the couple in the first place. Waiting for the train to London after docking in Southampton with Mr and Mrs Cellis, Harvey might or might not have noticed posters at the railway station from the Travellers’ Aid Society. Women and girls were ‘SPECIALLY WARNED not to accept offers of help from men and women who [were] UNKNOWN to them, or to go to any situation they [had] obtained through ADVERTISEMENTS without first assuring themselves of their RESPECTABILITY’. What’s striking is how modern the sentiment sounds. Last month, following Wayne Couzens’s conviction for the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard, a police commissioner, Philip Allott, resigned after giving a radio interview suggesting that Everard should not have ‘submitted’ to arrest by her killer, who was, at the time, a serving police officer.

Newton also cross-examined Harvey about her ‘sweetheart’ in Wellington; she admitted that a young man called Tom Robinson sometimes called for her at the boarding house. Newton hoped to make the court believe that if Harvey had allowed a man to woo her, she was already little different from a prostitute. New Zealand’s prime minister, Joseph Ward, seemed to agree. After telegraphing his story on the hearing to the editor of the Evening Post, Scholefield received a telegram informing him that a judge in New Zealand had issued a suppression order on all reporting of the case. Until the order was lifted, the Evening Post could only carry a brief paragraph stating the most basic facts of the case. The suppression order had come from the top. The prime minister had written to the police in Wellington and the Department of Justice asking for investigations to be made to prove his suspicion that Harvey was not as respectable as she seemed. The order wasn’t lifted until more than a month later, on 30 August, when Scholefield’s story finally appeared in full.

The following day, Ward made a speech in Parliament denouncing Harvey’s character and refuting the notion that New Zealand had a problem with white slavery. The investigation had yielded enough information on Harvey’s background to make Ward confident about issuing a public condemnation. Far from being respectable, he announced, she was the illegitimate child of an Oamaru piano teacher, Emily Badeley, who’d had seven children out of wedlock by multiple partners. Harvey’s late father was a solicitor, but had played no part in her life other than occasionally sending maintenance money. She had once entered a beauty contest sponsored by the Oamaru Mail – not exactly respectable behaviour. At sixteen, she moved to Wellington to take a job as a servant with a Mrs Batson and her four children. Harvey’s former employer told detectives that Lydia seemed to make the wrong sort of friends and stayed out late. Eventually, Harvey left her job, found work as a photographer’s assistant and moved into Mrs Logan’s boarding house. The New Zealand Truth called the house ‘respectable’, but noted that it was in a district of Wellington known for brothels, which could be considered another black mark. Ward told Parliament that no one should think this was ‘some respectable girl’ who had ‘been decoyed away’.

The trashing of Harvey’s character by her own prime minister shows how fragile a construct ‘respectability’ could be. Any unmarried working-class woman leading a semi-independent life in the early 20th century could have her reputation called into question without doing much more than step outside her house. ‘The “white slavery” panic,’ Laite writes,

encapsulated the anxieties of a society where a young woman’s roles were rapidly changing. Every city to which she might migrate, and every job she might take, was imagined as a source of potential danger … Most of all, the places where she might enjoy herself – the cinema and theatre, the dance hall, the bar and the café – were said to be the hunting grounds of procurers … ‘White slavery’ was a fear fashioned by crusading journalists and anti-vice campaigners and taken up by a society that longed for young women to remain in their traditional place, while exploiting them for their cheap and flexible labour.

Like many supposedly moral values, Edwardian respectability had a deep economic – as well as racist – foundation. It would not have been so easy for the likes of Carvelli to lure women into the trade if their jobs as dressmakers, servants or shopgirls hadn’t paid so badly. As a servant at Mrs Batson’s house, Harvey earned four shillings a week for six and a half days of exhausting labour, sweeping and scrubbing and cooking and washing both clothes and children. She was paid more than twice as much at the photographer’s studio, but it was still half what a street walker in London would earn on a single job. On the streets of Edwardian London, the relationship between police and prostitutes was complicated by the fact that both parties knew prostitutes earned ten times as much as policemen for working half as many hours.

The white slavery narrative operated on the assumption that a true victim would never consent to go with a trafficker. But the reality was messier. The jobs available to working-class women were precarious, poorly paid and humiliating – it wasn’t difficult for slavers to present prostitution as an attractive alternative, especially since the first step was usually to seduce the woman and promise her love and adventure. Mireille Lapara had worked as a dressmaker at three different shops before she agreed to go with di Nicotera to his Paris hotel. Female dressmakers were treated as human fodder by their employers: a few months after Lapara started soliciting for di Nicotera, 146 dressmakers in New York City burned to death at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrants.

For Laite the pertinent question – one rarely asked – is why men like Carvelli took up the life they did. The average pimp had a far wider range of job options than the women he chose to exploit. Carvelli, born in Turin in 1879 to a French mother and an Italian musician father, had received an excellent education. He spoke four languages (Italian, French, German and English). He could read and write Latin and Greek. He played several instruments and was a professional-standard opera singer. In 1897, his father arranged for a police captain in Turin to issue his son with a certificate of good conduct so that he could enlist in the army. (This, Laite writes, was ‘the pinnacle of late 19th-century Italian manhood’.)

But after a brief spell of military service Carvelli turned to theft. In 1900, he was sentenced to two years and eight months’ hard labour – there is no record of what he stole. To avoid the sentence, he escaped on a steamship to Sydney. At first he found work in the chorus of the Italian Opera Company, but soon he was up to his old tricks: robbing fancy hotels in Sydney and Adelaide under a string of aliases (his education helped him to pass as a guest). In 1901, he stole an expensive violin from a professor of music. He couldn’t resist taking the professor’s stylish trousers and silk scarves as well. At first the police struggled to tie Carvelli to the theft, but were able to make a case after he was spotted wearing the professor’s clothes.

In 1908, Carvelli settled in Leonora, a town which serviced the Northern Goldfields’ almost exclusively male workforce. Here he discovered a more lucrative calling, one that would pay for all the silk scarves he wanted. He established relationships with a handful of Australian women, paid for them to rent houses and put ‘dressmaker’ signs on their doors. In exchange, he took a cut of their earnings: up to £20 a week, or £2000 in today’s money. One of the women was Veronique White, who would later become his wife. He was in bed with her when the police burst in and arrested him in October 1908. The mugshot shows a man in an ostentatious jacket with slicked-back hair, a silk cravat and an absurdly luxuriant waxed moustache. He fled to Wellington before the charges could stick.

New Zealand’s appeal for Carvelli was simple. A recent case ruling had decriminalised the running of one-woman brothels. ‘Carvelli began to speak to estate agents and furniture dealers’ and installed three women (White was one) in separate premises. It was in New Zealand that he first encountered Alessandro di Nicotera. Together, they made a plan to go to Buenos Aires: they had heard that men who took women there came back ‘rich as an Argentine’. Apparently, the key was to have ‘seconds’ or ‘kids’: a younger woman who could be paired up with a more experienced prostitute. They heard that kids were especially valuable in Buenos Aires if they could be made to perform oral sex on clients.

Di Nicotera and Carvelli paid lodging-house tenants to keep an eye out for young women who had recently come to Wellington alone. This was how Carvelli snared Harvey and di Nicotera another girl, Florrie. Di Nicotera was seen arguing with her on a ship to South America, hitting her so hard in the face that she fell on the deck, but there is no record of what happened to her afterwards. Violence was par for the course. When Carvelli walked past Harvey in court after his sentencing, he said he would ‘do for her’ if he ever saw her again. After serving his time in London, Carvelli went to Auckland to run a brothel and money-laundering service, was deported, sneaked back to Australia posing as a tango teacher, and was deported again after someone who had known him as Signor Cellis recognised his eyes: one brown, one blue.

Harvey left the Police Home for Women and Girls after five months. Scotland Yard, fearing that she might end up back on the streets, tried to assist in getting her home. Her mother wanted her back but didn’t have the money to pay her passage, so an appeal was made to the New Zealand government. The response from the undersecretary at the Department of Justice in Wellington was unequivocal: New Zealand would not pay her fare since she was ‘not of good character’. Eventually, Frederick Bullock, the assistant commissioner for legal matters at Scotland Yard (the man who may or may not have thumped his fist on the table), raised money from the Police Voluntary Fund to buy her a ticket, third class. It cost £28. When she boarded the ship, Harvey put down her profession as ‘Domestic’.

Back in New Zealand, reunited with her mother, she found work as a vaudeville performer. In 1915, she married a young sailor. She died of Spanish flu in 1919, shortly after her 26th birthday. It was a sad end to a short life but, as Laite points out, it wasn’t the end dictated by the narrative of white slavery. In 1910, Harvey had been one of more than a thousand women added to the Buenos Aires register of newly arrived prostitutes. Also on the list that year were 252 women from Russia, 230 from Uruguay, 226 from France, 160 from other parts of Argentina, 91 from Spain, 76 from Italy, 40 from Austria-Hungary, fourteen from Belgium, ten from Germany, six from Turkey, two from England and five ‘miscellaneous’. Harvey, at least, made it out of Buenos Aires – thousands of others did not.

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